Gastro-pilgrimages, Past and Present
Traversing Europe in search of the ideal meal
Forty degrees in Dubrovnik. The gentle lap of the steaming Adriatic 50 metres below the city wall drowned by the steady march of determined day-trippers funnelled in from the cruise liners and the splash of lithe brown boys diving effortlessly from the rocks in pursuit of crazy woven baskets of crab, scent of fried squid, drifts of incense from the Jesuit church, suntan oil, sweat. The hip, bearded waiter serves my octopus burger. A blackboard behind me informs me that this is street food, Croatia style, adding that I can post my “like” on Facebook, or follow the bar on Twitter.
The octopus is pulped and deep-fried, perched in a nest of bright lettuce and a cunning chilli mayonnaise. It is cool, my burger. A bit dirty, a bit retro, sharply choreographed and ready for its Instagram close-up, but I have no desire to actually eat it. I wonder whether I should just cut out the middle man, snap and post my burger portrait and move on. I try a bite, and it’s fine, crisp and salty, sweet tomato juice, comforting pad of bread. Octopuses are surprisingly intelligent animals, capable of expressing both happiness and rage, able to learn simple tasks, leading lives of existential bleakness, the most solitary and uncommunal of sea creatures, alone from birth to death. Maybe the burger represents a step-up for the octopus, a chance for the nerd of the cephalopod world to hang with the in crowd, but I’m just not feeling it. This is an extraordinary place; I want to invest it with some significance, but my octopus burger is too international, for all its originality, too generic. We’re both trying too hard, we might as well be on an anxious first date in Hoxton.
Eating is an act of echophrasia, always communal, always, in some sense, commemorative. Whatever our culture, food connects us to an associative palate, a palimpsest of flavour reinscribed over and over with memory. Lawrence Durrell wrote of “the sour, pungent taste of black olives between the teeth”, the entire Mediterranean captured in one bite, “a taste older than meat or wine, a taste as old as cold water”. Scooping fresh almond granita from a plastic cup on Panarea this year, I tasted a flavour the Phoenicians had known, a transporting jolt of iced, creamy sweetness. When the Crusaders arrived on Sicily at the end of the 12th century, the island’s inhabitants were appalled by the manners of these hairy, unwashed giants from the north; the knights in their turn were first suspicious and then enchanted by the sherbets of the south. Richard the Lionheart and Philip Augustus of France cemented their short-lived pious alliance over sherbet before sailing on to the Holy Land, an historic moment we can still, magically, experience today in a mouthful of ice and the milk of a nut. Now that the gap between sensation and memory is so narrow, when we are encouraged to document the pleasurable or the exotic almost before we have actually experienced it, the food we eat on holiday might invite recollection, a sense of mindful ease which endures long after the tan has faded and the beach towels have been packed away for another year.
Everyone has their own version of the flavour of things past. For me, lukewarm Orangina from a paunchy glass bottle is my first trip to France, snails are Marrakech and the smell of Africa. This summer, I found myself in a cab in the dismal suburbs of Naples, looking for a man called Enzo, reputedly the king of Neapolitan pizzaiole. Enzo has trained pizza chefs everywhere from Tokyo to Heathrow, and the Friday night crowd outside his restaurant combined local families with pizza-hounds from Argentina and Australia in search of a hit. Buffalo mozzarella and tiny zucchini flowers, sharp oregano and dripping Calabrese salami spiked with fennel were pretty unbeatable, but the pizza which sang to me was served at Donna Sofia in the centro storico, the simplest cloud of pale dough with a smear of intense tomato paste and a few careless leaves of basil, part of a meal which began with a volcano of fried artichokes and ended with perfect black figs bobbing fatly in a bowl of iced water.
Enzo’s pizza was undeniably more delicious, but Donna Sofia’s conjured the first time I had ever tasted its like-not in a picturesque back alley but a nondescript Italian joint in the north of England 30 years ago, a seven-year-old’s culinary revolution in a world which until then had tasted mostly of my Aunt Ethel’s beige gravy. In Naples until recently, it was still possible to throw a couple of coins at the children playing in the street and have them pose eating spaghetti with their fingers, just as mischievous southern urchins were meant to do, an entirely inauthentic experience but one which spoke to the tourists’ desire to inscribe food with a sense of place and community lacking in the sterile chill-cook cabinets of home. It might seem risible in a sophisticated world of gastro-travel, where everyone poses and posts as a food critic, where we are all experts on ethical sourcing and organic production, but what makes holiday food so enchanting is precisely that desire for connection with our happiest selves.
This year, in a trip that took me from Transylvania to the Balearics, the Aeolian islands to the Montenegro archipelago, I was lucky enough to eat velvety raw tuna with the merest shaving of sea salt, fresh cream cheese with preserved orange rind, grilled mussels with lemon and breadcrumbs at a plastic table on a dock overlooking the Albanian coast, exquisite tagliolini with sea urchin, pastries of Swiss chard and ricotta in a glaring white Venetian courtyard, formidable stuffed cabbage at Bucharest airport. It was all better than the octopus burger, and none of it was as good as that pizza. For the greedy traveller, holiday memories encompass the layers of what we have eaten this year, and what we will enjoy the next-the best food, maybe, is not the most expensive, original or impossible to find, but that which encourages us to put down the iPhone, resist the urge to record, close our eyes and taste.